Park managers aim for ease and access with reservations
By Gwendolyn Craig
Madison Fox had heard tickets to see the sunrise on Maine’s Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park would go fast. Cadillac is renowned for being the first place in the continental United States to see the dawning of the day, true for most of winter.
While her partner Justin Scott was checking out of their hotel last September, Fox was on her phone at exactly 10 a.m. paying $6 to see a sunrise two days later. Though she secured a permit, she noticed the majority were already gone.
Scott wasn’t thrilled with the permit idea.
“If we waited until 10:05, we would have missed out on this entire experience,” Scott said later, bundled up on the side of the mountain as dawn emerged. “I’m the ‘more the merrier.’ I think it would be better without a reservation system.”
But Fox had heard the nightmares from pre-permit days. The National Park Service has a video showing summit stewards directing a snaking line of traffic and turning away drivers.
“Here we have a spot and we know we’ll get in, and I did appreciate that,” Fox said.
Nationwide, reservations and permits to gain access to certain trails and attractions are gaining popularity with those charged with its management, including in the Adirondack Park. Land managers say implementing these systems is intended to protect natural resources, while giving the public a safer and more enjoyable experience. But experiences are subjective, and some researchers say permits and reservations do more harm than good.
Summer event: Straight talk about High Peaks management
The Adirondack Explorer with the Adirondack Mountain Club will host a conversation around education and hikers in the High Peaks region. This free event is happening from 7-8:30 p.m. on July 20 at the former Cascade Ski Center in Lake Placid.
“I look at visitation upticks as a really good thing, and I think the best way to minimize the burden on wildlife and wild places is not to tell people not to come, but to protect more public lands and public waters,” said Jackie Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Campaign. Ostfeld said there are times when reservations or permits might be a strategy for a specific site. But a reservation system should be consistent across the state, paired with “deep community outreach and education,” she said. The system should also be nuanced to ensure no one is left out. Fees, Sierra Club research shows, often inhibit access.
The balance between access and natural resource protection is under consideration by the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council, a group of six federal agencies aiming for a consistent approach to visitor use management to better serve the public. The council is made up of the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
One Bureau of Land Management researcher wrote that managers often try permits and reservation systems as a last resort. But they’re getting a trial run in the Adirondacks.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation announced in March that it would test a second year of free reservations at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in Keene, a gateway to more than a dozen popular High Peaks-area hikes. People like Fox and Scott have mixed feelings about these limits and most land managers say there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
“There are so many tools in the tool belt,” said Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. “You figure out what’s most effective to experience the outdoors.”
The DEC and Adirondack Mountain Reserve are testing reservations again, requiring an online account at hikeamr.org for one of 70 daily spots.
The reserve leads to High Peaks including Gothics, Lower and Upper Wolfjaw, Dial and Nippletop. It is also used to access smaller mountains like Round and Noonmark, and hikes to waterfalls. One of the most popular hikes on social media is Indian Head and its fjord view.
The reserve itself is 7,000 acres privately owned by trustees, who are also members of the Ausable Club. A deal made with the state years ago gives a tax break in exchange for a foot traffic easement allowing the public to hike, ski and snowshoe on marked areas of the property, according to the DEC’s website.
Though the AMR trustees and DEC are calling the pilot program a “parking reservation,” anyone getting dropped off or arriving by bicycle must also have a reservation. Only those with a Greyhound or Trailways bus ticket from within the past 24 hours may enter without a reservation.
Reservations can be made starting at noon up to two weeks in advance and at minimum 12 hours the day before. One reservation accommodates up to eight people. The hikeamr.org website will take reservations for hikes May 1 to Oct. 31.
The DEC and AMR trustees did not announce any changes to the reservation system this year. They did highlight adjustments made in 2021, including the installation of an automatic one-way gate to allow for later departures and email reminders of reservations.
The DEC described the program last year as intended “to provide reliable access and address public safety along a particularly crowded stretch of Route 73 and Ausable Road.” AMR trustees also told the Adirondack Explorer it is meant to protect the natural resources.
C. Avery Braico, a whitewater rafting and fishing guide from Lake Luzerne, questioned the AMR trustees’ concerns about natural resource protection considering the trustees and the Ausable Club keep a private golf course on their land. He felt the gatekeeper role should be given to the DEC and not the club.
“I’m not against regulation of access at all,” Braico said. “I just question whether or not the Ausable Club really can put themselves in the place of being the environmental steward since they have a golf course.”
If the trustees are concerned with the environment, Braico said, he thinks they should conduct an environmental impact assessment of the whole property.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the DEC put together the second year of the reservation program with “valuable input shared by hikers, local leaders, and other stakeholders committed to making the Adirondacks safer and more accessible.” AMR General Manager John Schuler also said last year’s reservation system improved safety along Route 73, provided “fair and equitable access to parking for all levels of the hiking community” and protected the lands. In combination with the reservation system, the state Department of Transportation put up metal posts along some parking pull-offs.
The inaugural system saw 16,000 reservations and 21,000 users, DEC said. The agency did not include how many no-shows in its update. About 14,200 registrations were New Yorkers and 6,600 were from out-of-state. About 113 Canadians registered, though DEC and AMR officials said they expect that to increase as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Officials noted the system helped distribute visitor numbers more equally throughout the week, “reducing the heavy use typically experienced on weekends or holidays.” Illegal parking on Route 73 was also reduced, as was traffic congestion.
In response to the Explorer’s question about why it was called a parking reservation when it included drop-offs, DEC and AMR trustees said “if we allowed for everyone to just drop off hikers, it wouldn’t do much to address traffic in that you’d have people backed up trying to get into and out of Ausable Road. That would defeat the purpose of the parking reservation system in the first place.”
When the Explorer asked users their thoughts on the reservation system last year, some said they appreciated the assurance of a parking spot. Others were caught off guard and arrived without one, though they were able to hop on another person’s. Some suggested there should be a few same-day reservations.
DEC and AMR trustees said they’re “waiting to assess the potential impacts of the opening of Canadian border crossings prior to proposing changes to the program. Last year was a great start, but probably not a true indication of what we’ll see when we get back closer to traditional peak demand, much of which comes from Canada.” They also plan to evaluate and make changes if necessary.
Julia Goren, deputy director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said last year ADK’s Adirondack Loj saw some visitors with reservations to the AMR thinking they were permits for the club’s property. Other than those “unintended consequences,” Goren said ADK recognizes there is a place for permits.
“We support education as our preferred first tool for dealing with visitor use,” Goren said. “The AMR was able to do it because it’s their property. Yes, there’s an easement over it, but it’s their property.”
State land, Goren said, is a different story. The AMR system is a good opportunity to learn and collect data, she said, should the state be looking to expand reservations and permits in the park. She hopes part of the data collection involves capturing information from people who were unable to get a reservation.
“That’s a big part of the puzzle,” Goren said. “Particularly on forest preserve, I would hope that some of the data collection would support a visitor use management plan and that would then inform whether or not a reservation or permit system would be necessary.”
Baxter State Park
Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the end of the Appalachian Trail, is in Baxter State Park. Baxter’s parking reservation system to climb the 5,269-foot peak has come up in brainstorming sessions of the Adirondack Council about a permit or reservation system in the Adirondacks.
Eben Sypitkowski, Baxter State Park’s former park director, said he was invited by the Adirondack Council in 2017 to attend a meeting with state officials to prove that “everything won’t totally fall apart” if restrictions are put in place.
Sypitkowski spoke with the Explorer before taking a position with The Nature Conservancy in Maine.
The 38-year-old described Baxter, which is actually not a state park but a private trust, as a land under intense protection. The 215,000-acre park was created by the late Gov. Percival P. Baxter. The last parcel was acquired in 1962. Baxter funded trusts for operation and maintenance of the park with the stipulation “that it be kept forever wild,” a familiar phrase used in the New York State constitution’s forest preserve protection clause.
Baxter, with its 40 peaks and ridges, 215 miles of trails and ten campgrounds, draws 60,000 visitors in summer. The park is managed by a three-person authority including the state attorney general, the director of the Maine Forest Service and the commissioner of the state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Sypitkowski said Baxter’s deeds and correspondence showed “he had a preference for natural resource protection to take primacy over recreational access, which is sort of flipping the script from most state parks and other outdoor recreation venues.”
“Basically, wilderness wins out,” Sypitkowski said.
That has led the park to implement a $5 day-use parking reservation for Katahdin. If there are unfilled spots or no-shows, a parking attendant allows drop-ins first come, first served, starting around 7:05 a.m. when the parking reservation expires. Maine residents are given an opportunity to book online before out-of-staters.
Sypitkowski said the no-show rate is high, about 60%, because many making reservations select Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then show up for the best weather.
When the permit program started in 2016, it was difficult to get people to recognize the benefits, Sypitkowski said. It’s still tough.
There continues to be public confusion, Sypitkowski said, that Katahdin is in Baxter State Park. People show up “wanting to hike the hill” without having done any research on the reservation. Only about one-third of people who visited the park researched it before arriving, Sypitkowski said, based on a 2020 survey.
But ultimately from his own observations, Sypitkowski thinks permits and restrictions are helping to protect the park. Sypitkowski said the park isn’t collecting any specific data on the permit system’s impact on natural resource protection, however. The park doesn’t have the staff to address that, he said.
National Park Service: Acadia and others
Last year, the more than 420 national parks saw nearly 300 million visitors, the park service’s Kupper said. That’s almost the entire population of the country. About 25% of visitors go to eight of those 420.
To help manage the traffic, the park service is experimenting with reservation systems in some of the popular spots. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is testing a day-hiking permit to climb Old Rag Mountain. Zion National Park in Utah is testing a permit for hiking Angels Landing. The idea is that reservations and permits will help with “maximizing enjoyment and minimizing impact,” Kupper said.
The NPS tries these sorts of programs after extensive community comment, Kupper said. There was no such comment opportunity for the Adirondack Mountain Reserve’s reservation system. Most of the NPS programs are timed entries to favored trails. Kupper likened them to reserving your seat in a movie theater.
Peter Pettengill, an associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, worked as an outdoor recreation planner for Grand Canyon National Park from 2012-2015. In that time, he would question visitors in the Grand Canyon’s backcountry about their perceptions of solitude, one of the conditions for federally designated wilderness. How many people could a backcountry user encounter and still feel solitude? Pettengill said the answer was about five encounters per day. Backcountry permits, Pettengill said, keep “that threshold or standard from being violated.”
Before the NPS gets to permits and reservations, however, land managers go through visitor use management criteria. Pettengill said those things include defining an objective, establishing indicators that will show the objective is being met and monitoring those indicators to adjust management actions. So as Kupper listed the new permit and reservation systems, the NPS is constantly monitoring how those systems are doing.
She emphasized that many of these new systems announced in the last year or two are temporary and “will help inform long-term planning projects.”
Acadia’s $6 sunrise reservation for Cadillac Mountain was tested for the first time in 2020 and fully implemented in 2021. The NPS announced it will continue the system from May 25 to Oct. 22 this year.
Stephanie Clement, conservation director for Friends of Acadia, said the permit was needed to control dangerous parking.
“People were ditching their cars on the side of the road; traffic was being narrowed down to one lane,” she said.
Some found the reservation system easy. Sheila Armshaw, of Annapolis, Md. and her friend Dawn Narvaez, from Laguna Beach, Calif. liked that they avoided long lines at Cadillac. The two have been friends since first grade and got together after 25 years for a reunion. After watching the sunrise on a September morning, they said they appreciated avoiding “waiting to get in and find parking.”
Sam Erlinger and Julia Suggs missed the online window to get a sunrise permit. They didn’t have cellphone service at the time the permit purchasing system went live, something that others posted frustrations about in online comments. But the lack of a permit didn’t stop the Missouri couple.
Instead they woke up at 4:30 a.m. and hiked the 1,500-foot mountain from the North Ridge trailhead at 5 a.m.
“I hiked a little faster than I’d like,” Suggs said, laughing.
They had just missed the fleeting moment when the sun’s arc appeared. But they were still in time for a spectacular color show as the sky turned various shades of pink, orange, yellow and then bright blue.
“I’d say we roughly made it here by the time the sun came out,” Erlinger said.
Not all are happy with the various permits and reservations cropping up at parks. After paying more than $70 for her family to visit the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire this past summer, Christine Brown was fed up. “Nickel and dimed,” she said. The fees made what was traditionally affordable family vacations the equivalent to staying at all-inclusive resorts, she said.
Brown, her husband and three children are from Rhode Island and enjoy visiting parks and camping. It’s something Brown did with her parents growing up. But back then, those who arrived earliest got campsites.
“Now it’s like getting concert tickets in November of the prior year out,” she said.
Brown had paid for reservations to see the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Maine, too.
“It just makes the whole trip more stressful when you have to plan in advance,” Brown said. “Then with the weather being unpredictable, especially this year, I felt a lot of pressure. I’ve been worrying about this.”
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